Monday, January 27, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatle Who Vanished



John, Paul, George, and...Jimmie? For two weeks in June 1964, that was the Beatles' line-up. Most hardcore fans of the band know the general reason why Jimmie Nicol became a deputy Beatle for those two weeks, but apart from that he's been relegated to an obscure footnote in Beatles history; a trivia question answer, if you will. That's pretty much how I'd always viewed the entire episode that I always thought was nothing more than a blip in the Beatles storied career. But Jim Berkenstadt's new book, The Beatle Who Vanished, challenges us to dig deeper into the story of Jimmie Nicol and to frame just how and why he ended up in the situation he did that lucky month of June all those years ago.

***special thanks to Jim Berkenstadt himself for sending me a copy of this book to review...it's much appreciated!***

For anyone who is not clear on the scenario I referenced above, let me paint the picture for you: in early June 1964, the Beatles had gathered for a photo shoot and a quick recording session the day before they were due to leave on their first world tour, which would take them to Europe, Hong Kong, and Australia before they made their way back to the US and UK. However, during the photo shoot, Ringo fell ill and had to be rushed to the hospital, which turned out to be due tonsilitis. It required a two-week hospitalization with a minor operation and recovery, which threw the plans for the world tour into doubt. Scrambling, manager Brian Epstein declared that they'd need to find a stand-in drummer. He was met with resistance, most vocally from George Harrison, but eventually convinced the other three that it was preferable to letting all of the fans down, upsetting the various concert promoters, and ruining all of the intricate planning of the tour, not to mention the loss of revenue and the bad public relations it could bring upon the band. Thus, Jimmie Nicol, a respected session drummer, was drafted in to replace Ringo; he wore his suits, combed his hair down, and learned the songs in a crash course before setting off on the tour. After the gigs in Europe, Hong Kong, and a few in Australia, Ringo rejoined the tour in Melbourne and Jimmie went back to England and promptly vanished from the history books.

Or so we've always thought.

Berkenstadt is a well-known, respected researcher and writer about the Beatles and calls himself the "Rock and Roll Detective." With this book, he's certainly lived up to that billing! Going in, I thought this would be an interesting book looking at Nicol's two weeks in the Beatles and not much else, and I was wondering how it would be stretched into an entire book. Instead, what the author has given us is a full-blown biography of Nicol, tracing his life and musical evolution from his birth and childhood in London to his initially moderately successful career as a musician, and then from his stint with the Beatles to his subsequent wandering and enigmatic life and career. Right off the bat, I need to commend the research done by the author, who traveled all over the world, from the UK and Europe to Mexico and Australia and points between, in order to do his detective work. Writing a detailed biography on famous public figures is difficult enough, but to write one on basically a normal Everyman who vanished without a trace over thirty years ago is a challenge, yet Berkenstadt managed to accomplish the task through his thorough and dedicated research.

Briefly, Nicol's story does not simply begin and end with his two week tour of duty with the Beatles. A talented jazz and R&B drummer in London in the 1950s, he was a member of a couple of successful bands that recorded records and toured the world before settling into session work in London in the early 1960s. From here, his life took a real star turn when he got The Call in June 1964. The aforementioned photo shoot turned into an impromptu audition and rehearsal, and the next day, with his hair combed forward and squeezed into Ringo's suits (the pants were too short!), Jimmie was en route with the band to Europe to begin the tour. Berkenstadt details each gig and press conference to show what Jimmie's experience was, and reviews his performance at each show (most of which are available on bootleg recordings). Through it all, amazingly, it seems Nicol was torn between wanting to get back home and convincing himself that he would be made a permanent replacement for Ringo! Eventually, Ringo rejoined the band in Australia and Nicol was sent back to London and into obscurity. But, incredibly, the author has managed to tell the story of Nicol's life from this point on in vivid detail. From his ultimately failed attempts to establish another band in England to rival the success of the Beatles, to his stint in the relatively successful Swedish band The Spotnicks, to his resettling in Mexico (along with some bizarre musical endeavors!) and eventual abandonment of music, from his failed marriage and the wife and son who left him in London to his short-lived and tempestuous second marriage in Mexico, and his eventual disappearance and the rumors of his death after his final public appearance at a Beatles convention in the mid-1980s, the author has managed to use his exceptional research skills to show that Nicol did have a career and some success both before and after his two week stint as the most famous stand-in in rock history. Through it all, by interviewing countless friends and associates of Nicol's, Berkenstadt is able to paint the portrait of a man who played by his own rules his entire life, who was driven to succeed, sometimes to a fault, even in the face of multiple failures. He also shows Nicol at times to be downright delusional, both in his conviction that he would be Ringo's permanent replacement and his accompanying resentment, as well as being convinced that Epstein blacklisted him in England after he was through with the tour, despite no evidence to support him (think about it, why would Epstein do this? Nicol was not exactly a threat to the Beatles' success!).  Jimmie's bitterness at the entire experience, which he called "the worst thing that happened to me," and his reluctance later in life to cash-in on his association with the band contrasts greatly with his using his time in the band to try and jumpstart his career upon arriving back in London in the summer of 1964.  If I'm being honest, Nicol became quite unlikeable at times when reading this, but that's a testament to the author's writing and research since I'd never given him more than a second thought in Beatles history prior to reading this book.

The book itself has a lot of photos from throughout Nicol's life and career, as well as photos of numerous ticket stubs, autographs, and obscure singles and albums that the author has managed to collect over the years. In particular, the pictures from Nicol's time as a deputy Beatle are fascinating, especially one haunting picture that I will leave for the reader to discover on their own.  It also provides insight into the music scene in London during the 1950s and pre-Beatles 60s when most other books have us believe that the UK was a musical wasteland, sustained only by records and tours from American musicians until the Fab Four burst on to the scene in late 1962.  The author also shows how different the careers of the Beatles and Nicol were throughout the 1960s but how Nicol did have some small influence on the Beatles, mainly their 1967 song "Getting Better" and an offhand comment Paul made during the Get Back sessions in 1969. Finally, at the end of the book, Berkenstadt sets out to locate Jimmie Nicol, who had been believed dead since 1988 or so, mainly because of a rumor his own estranged son had started! Traveling from the US to England, Mexico, and Australia, the author eventually deduces that Nicol is still alive and well and living in the Netherlands and still working in the building trade, which is what he'd been doing since he gave up music in the mid 1970s. While Berkenstadt never does ultimately come face to face with Nicol for an interview, throughout the course of the book he manages to give us as much detail and insight as possible into this fascinating man and his part in a very curious and strange episode in the career of the biggest band in the world.

The Beatle Who Vanished is a real life detective story that I highly recommend to any serious Beatles fan. It doesn't shed any new insight on the Beatles themselves, but it sheds entirely new light onto this unique bit of their career. But more than that, it finally gives Jimmie Nicol his due as a musician and person and shows that he was not simply the answer to a trivia question but a man who tried to make it in the music business during the incredible period of 1960s London and for one brief, shining fortnight, was at the top of the pops.

MY RATING: 9.5/10

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